Mexicanness" in New York: Migrants Seek New Place in Old Racial Order

September 25, 2007

Over the past decade, one of the more dramatic population developments in the United States has been the burgeoning of the Mexican community all along the eastern seaboard. Population experts predict that within ten years Mexicans will be the largest minority on the east coast—from Florida to New England. In many places, especially those with relatively small minority populations, such as some towns in New York’s Hudson Valley or on the Delmarva Peninsula just east of Washington, DC, they already are. This growth has been especially striking in New York City. From a population that barely existed in the early 1980s, Mexican New Yorkers now number in the hundreds of thousands. The U.S. Census Bureau enumerated over 260,000 Mexicans in New York State in 2000, of whom more than 180,000 were estimated to be in New York City. Allowing for the undercount—many Mexican New Yorkers are undocumented—this means there are probably 450,000-500,000 Mexicans in the state and 300,000 in the city alone.

The new migrants to New York are predominantly from the Mixteca region of southern Mexico, a region that includes large parts of the states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero. It is a poor, hot agricultural region, called “tierra caliente,” that has sent migrant workers to the United States in small numbers since the 1940s, and from which migration to the United States has been accelerating since Mexico’s rural economy went into long-term crisis in the late 1980s.

The new immigrants, willing to put in long, hard days of work, have been welcomed by the city’s low-wage employers, though their children have received a more ambiguous welcome in the city’s schools and neighborhoods. And as the third-largest Latino group in the city, with an enormous potential for growth, Mexicans are beginning to draw the attention of New York’s political and community leaders. How their “Mexicanness” will be defined in New York’s complex web of ethnicities remains to be seen. Answers will emerge as they begin to negotiate their way through the city’s system of social and racial hierarchies.[1]

Mexicans do not fit “naturally” into any one spot in New York’s social and racial hierarchies. They enter New York both as immigrants and as Latinos. As immigrants they face—and many have internalized—expectations that they conform to an “immigrant analogy” according to which they will work hard and sacrifice their personal well-being so that their children and grandchildren can prosper. As Latinos, they confront social networks that are heavily “racialized”—networks in which ethnic groups are represented on a continuum that runs from black to white. They face the standard U.S. representations of race, based on the “original sin” of slavery, with “whiteness” signalling that a group is fit for full membership in society. Their immigrant bargain is, in fact, implicitly juxtaposed to the situation of native-born blacks: the native-born do not sacrifice, and they therefore will not prosper.

But the racial categories in New York City are complicated by two things. On the one hand, there are nuanced degrees of white ethnicity and racialization due in part to the presence of first-generation white immigrants such as Greeks, Russians and Italians. On the other hand, African-Americans share the most stigmatized position at the bottom of the hierarchy with a Latino group, Puerto Ricans. Many Puerto Ricans possess phenotypes that most Americans would consider “black,” and experience consonant levels of racial segregation and discrimination; but they also speak Spanish and are immigrants. Hence, many Mexican parents and their New York-born children wonder whether their futures will look more like the hard lives they associate with Puerto Ricans and blacks or more like the upwardly mobile lives they associate with white ethnic immigrants. They wonder—worriedly—whether they will become a marginalized, racialized minority or an incorporated ethnic group?[2]

Writing in the 1930s, W.E.B. DuBois mused that poor southern whites got a “public, psychological wage” by being white that enabled them to feel superior to blacks despite the many commonalities in their material living conditions. Historian David Roediger has used DuBois’ insight to analyze how the “Irish became white.” When Irish immigrants started coming to the United States in significant numbers in the 1830s, they had much in common with African-Americans. Both groups did America’s dirty work, both were victimized by systematic racism, and they often lived side by side in the poorest parts of northern cities. Roediger answers the question of how the Irish came to not only distance themselves from blacks but to embrace an anti-black racism by analyzing their racialized mobilization by the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. What the Irish had learned, in essence, was that to be full members of U.S. society, one had not simply to be “not black” but also in many instances “anti-black.”[3] This dynamic of incorporation has lived on through generations in a situation in which immigration to the United States is seen simultaneously as a struggle-and-prosper story—the “immigrant analogy”—and one in which generations of immigrants have succeeded by differentiating themselves from blacks, who are understood to form an underclass.

My research with Mexicans in New York over the last fifteen years has yielded a complex picture of responses to the need to define oneself within racialized hierarchies.[4] The immigrant first generation usually has responded by embracing the immigrant analogy, though in different ways in different contexts. In the labor market, for example, Mexican workers frequently confront complex and contradictory forms of ethnic solidarity.[5] While many Korean, Greek, Italian and native-born employers explicitly or implicitly compare Mexican immigrants to native-born blacks and Puerto Ricans, hence treating them as part of the out-group, they also see them as immigrants like themselves, or like their immigrant predecessors, hence part of their in-group. This leads to an emphasis by employers on their own similarities with their Mexican immigrant employees, and the difference of both from native minorities. I have heard many an employer identify with his Mexican employees. A Greek restaurant owner, for example, extolled to me the virtues of Mexican employees while in the same breath he disparaged African-Americans. With tears in his eyes, he told me about working 12-hour days like his Mexican workers, saying, “When I came to this country I was a good Mexican.” The willingness of Mexican immigrants to work hard makes them different from native-born workers, he said, and he detailed how they moved up step by step from being busboys, to dishwashers, to cooks.[6] In addition to African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, native-born whites are occasionally included in these unfavorable comparisons.

Within this social context, racialization—the logic of moral and civic worth based on one’s ethnic or racial affiliation—takes place within the Mexican community itself. For example, while some parents express no preferences regarding who their children date, many parents do not want their children to date African-Americans or in some cases Puerto Ricans, even though they themselves may have black and Puerto Rican friends, or even relatives through marriage. Many parents talk of how Puerto Ricans helped them when they came to New York many years earlier, when there were fewer Spanish speakers, but lament what they see as the Puerto Rican population’s miserable social conditions. In particular, many Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children point to what they see as the tendency of Puerto Rican young men to engage in crime, especially against Mexicans, the propensity of Puerto Rican young women to get pregnant, and the tendency of many Puerto Ricans to depend on government assistance. This is frequently expressed as evidence of the “Americanization” that robs Puerto Ricans of their culture and leaves them vulnerable to the urban vices that Mexicans can resist.

“I had one Puerto Rican friend who has had five husbands in her lifetime,” says an immigrant mother. “Tell me, what are you giving to your family?... Because you have to think about your kids.... With my countrymen, almost never is there a divorce.”[7] This sentiment is echoed, in a separate interview, by a second-generation teen-age girl: “In a Mexican family, you move out with your boyfriend. He’s your husband because you sleep with him.... We’ve had girls getting pregnant, you know... but it’s not taken so lightly.... I see Puerto Rican girls and it’s just like they get pregnant, pregnancy after pregnancy. They either get an abortion or just get on welfare.... It’s a matter of pride. Puerto Ricans have gotten a lot Americanized...and we still have strong values from over there.”[8]

In both of these cases, Americanization among Puerto Ricans is seen as a cause of their having failed, while Mexicans are seen to be insulated by their culture from such erosions of values. To be sure, many in the first or second generation do not buy into the immigrant analogy. A second generation woman notes the tendency of Mexicans to assert that they are different from blacks and Puerto Ricans, but is critical of it: “They don’t want to be like them,” she says of her young compatriots, “but I believe they are, because I believe they do the same things. Why do they have to have a gang? Supposedly that’s only blacks and Puerto Ricans. You know, and why do they have to go around drinking ‘forties’...the big bottles of beer? Mexicans?”[9]

This woman has identified a potential problem in the collective self-image of much of the Mexican community in New York. If that self-image is premised on a juxtaposition with African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, it is being challenged by rising indicators of social distress resulting from the settlement and incorporation of Mexicans in New York. Despite increasing numbers of upwardly mobile second-generation youth, these indicators show increasing numbers of young people, born in Mexico and in the United States, who leave school or join gangs, or become pregnant at an early age. The formation of youth gangs grows out of the migration process itself and the often hostile reception that Mexican youth get here. Concretely, many second generation youth see that their lives are very similar to the blacks and Puerto Ricans with whom they share neighborhoods, parks and schools. Many see limited employment options, little payback from schooling, and feel that the larger society and its institutions think they will fail.

According to Census data, about one of three U.S.-born Mexican women and one of five U.S.-born Mexican men in New York were upwardly mobile between 1980 and 1990 in terms of education and occupation. While this points to some upward mobility, it also indicates that many people are getting stuck. According to the Census, Mexicans as a group went from having one of the highest per capita incomes of all Latinos in New York in 1980 (when the community was smaller) to having one of the lowest in 1990. By 1990, Mexicans also had the largest percentage of 16-19 year olds not in school and not graduated: 47% versus 22% for Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, 18% for blacks and 8% for whites. Part of the reason for these indicators of social distress is the huge surge in Mexican youth migration during the 1990s; younger people earn less, and teen migrants often do not enter school.

The figures are disquieting for members of the Mexican community. Social psychologists have observed that a positive ethnic identity is usually associated with greater life success, but for many of these young people, self image is formed around an identity that includes being vulnerable on the street, seeing relatively few people who have succeeded through school, and facing the prospect of years of poorly paid hard work.

A significant cause of the surge in the Mexican population during the 1990s was family reunification made possible by the “amnesty” provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). To most people’s surprise, the approximately 9,000 Mexicans in New York City who applied for amnesty constituted the second-largest group to do so, just behind the approximately 11,000 Dominican applicants. By the mid 1990s many of these immigrants had their permanent residency and were bringing their families up from Mexico, with or without visas; friends and other relatives also followed. So during the mid-1990s there was a huge increase in the Mexican youth population, resulting in the sudden public presence of Mexican youth in schools, parks and neighborhoods. As Mexican youth report the story, other local youth—especially, but not exclusively, blacks and Puerto Ricans—responded by preying on Mexicans, insulting, beating and robbing them. Mexicans formed gangs and crews to defend themselves.

This process, too, engaged with racialization. One of the first Mexican youth gangs in the city called itself ODR, “Organization to Defend the Race.” ODR was formed in the mid 1980s by adolescent Mexicans who defined “the race” as “la raza hispana,” and welcomed Mexicans, Central and South Americans, and Puerto Ricans born on the island. The purpose was to defend themselves against Puerto Ricans and blacks born in New York, whom they saw as their primary antagonists. This definition of raza hispana resonated deeply with the contradictions inherent in the immigrant analogy and the racialized hierarchies of New York. ODR was at once an understandable response to a hostile reception from native-born adolescents, and at the same time an embrace of the immigrant analogy—an attempt to self-identify as immigrants in New York and to differentiate from what was understood as a native-born underclass.

Indeed, among adolescent Mexicans, there has been no single way of adapting to New York life. In addition to the young Mexicans who are dropping out of school at alarming rates, some upwardly mobile youth have used their Mexican ethnicity to differentiate themselves from other minorities in their schools and neighborhoods, whom they see as not serious about school. “Being Mexican helps us do better” describes how many of these adolescents understand themselves. There are other, “cosmopolitan,” adolescents who see Mexicanness as only one identity among many, and there is a small group that dissociates itself from Mexicans in public places and identifies instead, in most cases, with upwardly mobile blacks. They see these successful black students as role models whose success they wish to emulate. They fear that if they hang around with other Mexicans they will be pressured to cut school a lot or eventually drop out.

And the results of adolescent engagements with racialized social relations have sometimes been ironic. For example, many Mexican youth, especially boys, now fear being “stepped up to”—stopped by others to verify if they are in a rival gang or not—by members of Mexican gangs more than they fear confrontation with blacks or Puerto Ricans. Most Mexican gang confrontations actually involve conflicts with other Mexicans, not Puerto Ricans or African-Americans. Other Mexican youth I have interviewed report that they are not stepped up to because they “look Dominican” or “look Ecuadorian,” and hence are let pass uninspected.

All this suggests recent immigrants and their allies should step up their fight for an immigrant policy that includes more bilingual education, programs for parents to learn English, summer and after school programs for youth and tighter links between U.S. institutions and the communities from which immigrants come. Such a policy, of course, would have to be linked to the rebirth of anti-poverty efforts on behalf of the entire population.

For now, as Mexicans enter the political, social and economic worlds of New York, they do so within the pervasive and dangerous context of racialization. Immigration is not a straight “struggle and prosper” story. We should take note of how the Irish and other “formerly non-white” immigrants became white, and what this means for how immigrants, past and present, have learned and internalized what it means to be “American.”

Robert Smith teaches sociology at Barnard College. He is the author of Migration, Settlement and Transnational Life (forthcoming, 2002) and many articles on migration and transnational communities.

1. See Robert Smith, “Mexicans: Social, Educational, Economic and Political Problems and Prospects in New York,” in Nancy Foner, ed., New Immigrants in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming, 2001).
2. For Mexicans in California, the answer will be different than for those in New York. In California, there has already been a racialization and stigmatization of Chicanos, despite the fact that there has been significant upward mobility in the population there as well, especially among women. See Dowell Myers and Cynthia Cranford, “Temporal Differentiation in the Occupational Mobility of Immigrant and Native-Born Latina Workers,“ American Sociological Review, Vol. 63, No. 1, February, 1998, pp. 68-93. It is also interesting that the comments I have heard usually compare Mexicans to Puerto Ricans and blacks or other minorities, and not with whites. Part of the reason for this is that the lifeworlds of most Mexicans and Mexican Americans, especially youth, do not include too many whites. Many of the people we have interviewed for our projects report not knowing many whites, except for teachers or employers, and that most of their classmates, workmates, or people they see in the parks or in their neighborhoods, are black or Latino.
3. David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 1991), especially chapters 1 and 7. See also Joel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995) and Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
4. This work can be consulted in a variety of venues: Robert Smith, “‘Los Ausentes Siempre Presentes’: The Imagining, Making and Politics of Community Between Ticuani, Puebla, Mexico and New York City,” Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 1995; “Mexicans in New York City: Membership and Incorporation of New Immigrant Group,” in Sherrie L. Baver and Gabriel Haslip-Viera, eds. Latinos in New York (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996); “Gender, Race and Schools in Educational and Work Outcomes of Second Generation Mexican Americans in New York,” in Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Mariela Paez, eds., Latinos in the 21st Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming, 2001); “Mexicans,” in Foner, ed. See also Robert Smith, Hector Cordero- Guzman and Ramon Grosfoguel “Introduction: New Analytical Perspectives on Migration, Race and Transnationalization” in Cordero-Guzman, Smith and Grosfoguel, eds., Migration, Race and Transnationalization in a Changing New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); and Robert Smith, Migration, Settlement and Transnational Life, forthcoming, 2002. Research assistance during 1998-2000 by Sara Guerrero Rippberger, Sandra Lara, Agustin Vecino, Carolina Pérez, Griscelda Pérez, Linda Rodriguez and Lisa Peterson is gratefully acknowledged.
5. I call this “doubly bounded solidarity.” It is my adaptation of the concept of bounded solidarity as developed by Alejandro Portes and his colleagues. See Portes’ chapters in Portes, The Economic Sociology of Immigration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1995). Also see Min Zhou, “Segmented Assimilation: Issues, Controversies, and Recent Research on the New Second Generation,” in Charles Hirschman, Philip Kasinitz, and Josh DeWind, eds., Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), pp. 196-212.
6. Author’s interview, 1993, New York City.
7. Author’s interview, 1997, New York City.
8. Author’s interview, 1998, New York City.
9. Author’s interview, 1997, New York City.

Tags: race, Mexicans, New York City, Latinos, immigrants, identity politics

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.